Now that a lead actor has been cast, it seems the Hollywood remake of Death Note might actually, finally, really be happening. Of course, after years of false starts, this adaptation will surely need to take significant creative liberties. And if the plot of a high school teen writing the names of people he wants dead in a notebook caused copycat scares when it was limited to just the spheres of anime, manga and J-horror, it’s tough to see any American studio exec feeling comfortable presenting that unaltered premise to a mass audience. Also, there are so many high concept twists introduced after that set-up, you can bet this winding epic will have to be drastically streamlined, too.
So, before a Westernized feature (potentially) becomes what most people in the US know about Death Note, let’s step back and appreciate why such an unusual horror serial has already captured millions of imaginations…
For the uninitiated, the titular Death Note is a magic book that lets its owner kill anyone he or she wants. All that’s needed is to write the victim’s name in its pages, and to pick the means of death, if desired. This book falls into the hands of high school senior, Light Yagami, and he’s immediately seduced by its power. Styling himself as a vigilante, he uses it first to kill prisoners he decides deserve execution, and then moves on to target anybody who gets in his way.
Observers on the internet quickly ascribe this rash of mysterious deaths to a death deity, “Kira,” and Light embraces the title. It’s not long, however, before this would-be god’s activities attract the attention of a brilliant, Holmes-esque master detective. A cat and mouse game ensues between the two, with Light ruthlessly protecting his secret identity.
How did Light get the Death Note in the first place? Well, it was idly dropped into the human world by a bored shinigami (death god) from another realm, who then comes to Earth to shadow Light in his endeavors. Another shinigami gives a different Death Note to a pop star/idol, who becomes a disciple of Light/Kira, and THEN… well, you get the idea. As mentioned before, a whole host of complications come in after the initial premise. A Hollywood version will have to pare down quite a bit of it to get this down to two hours, so it’d be best to focus on what makes Death Note so unsettling on the most basic level.
It’s said that the scariest monsters embody the fears of their time. Dracula, for example, strums on a few at once. Obviously, vampirism conflates with forbidden sexuality (and all its venereal diseases), and that’s timeless. However, it’s easy to forget the importance of the Count’s title. It angled him to personify an obsolete class system that was declining at the end of the Victorian era. Dracula is a lord who once served his people, but has stayed in power well past his welcome–to the point that he’s literally feeding on commoners. Look at Bram Stoker’s novel with that subtext in mind and suddenly it’s the story of a foreign aristocrat trying to make the modern Englishman into a serf again.
Finding such subtext in Light Yagami isn’t hard. He’s a monster for the internet age.
The internet doesn’t feature into Death Note too overtly, or too often. Light picks his initial victims by looking up crime reports, then insists he’s scrutinized them carefully enough to decide which criminals got easier sentences than they deserved. And it’s fan sites, dedicated to Kira, which give Light a name for his alter-ego. Otherwise, technology has little bearing on the Death Note. It’s a totally fantastical thing.
Still… describe Light in the broad strokes. He’s an arrogant kid who can inflict wide-spread terror from the comfort of his bedroom. He passes half-informed judgment while hiding behind an anonymous alias. And he can shrug off his personal crusade whenever he’s bored of it, exiting to a normal, suburban life as easily as he’d click out of a browser. Sounds like your worst vision of a hacker, no? Or even just a troll.
Light might be an update of the Invisible Man–showing how monstrously a person can act without the threat of recognition–but a couple particulars make him a creature of his own stripe. First, the fact that the Death Note gets into his hands out of caprice, basically. There’s no scheme. The shinigami are so bored that they let this weapon drop into the human world just observe what happens next. And there’s the fact that Light is Zac Efron. He isn’t a moody loner, nor a persecuted outside. He’s a popular pretty boy–the head of his class, in fact–with no real grudge to settle with society. No matter how eloquently he states his desire to rid the world of evil, it’s clear he’s acting only to serve a psychopathic ego.
Hopefully, enough of this complexity will survive the transition to a major motion picture. Omitting even a little of it will really de-fang one of anime’s most fascinating, and timely, villains.
Image Credits: VIZ Media